A paved road in rural Oklahoma; on either side, miles of rolling grassland, the grass tall and pale with autumn. My friends, a married couple, coming along the road in their pickup truck, ought to have been insulated from the natural world. A motion in the ditch caught their eyes. It was enough to make the man, who had the wheel, slow down; he didn’t want to hit a deer. It was, in fact, a deer, but something was wrong with it. They could tell from that one flicker of motion, before they were even certain what sort of animal they were seeing. It had that peculiar spastic quality that suggests incipient seizure, a wounded spine or brain.
They stopped, got out of the truck. The deer saw them, staggered almost to its feet, folded back down. A muscular wave went through it, as if it meant to flee but couldn’t get its legs under it. The man eased closer to see. The deer had been gut-shot.
He was a hunter; his wife had always been around men who hunted. He had been hunting this very week, in fact, and both had eaten the venison. They were not the sort to think they could put the thing in the truck and take it to the vet.
The way he saw it, someone had done something wrong. Someone had shot the deer and failed to follow it up, or had not followed it assiduously enough. This unknown hunter had failed to follow the code. A man may kill an animal, but he must minimize its pain. The anonymous hunter was cruel to let the deer go gut-shot. Its death would be painful; maybe dogs or coyotes would eventually run it down, or maybe it would simply die a lingering death. But it would be wrong to say that cruelty was the whole of his complaint. He mainly objected to the broken code.
He is not particular about rules in general. I know him as a hard drinker, a breaker of traffic laws and rules of etiquette; but he doesn’t break laws just for fun. Like most of us, he weighs the material advantages and risks, multiplies by the coefficient of his own conscience, and makes a decision. But the rules of killing are something different. In his mind they are not subject to expedience or interpretation. Whoever had done this thing had proven himself less than a man. It is too little to say he had failed at a sort of civic responsibility; he had failed at humanity, or at least at masculinity.
Since he was not carrying a gun, he had to use the hunting knife he carried in the truck. He was not used to slaughtering animals by hand. He had to psych himself up for it. He paced before the truck, working himself up until he was snorting like a bull; he might have been a power lifter preparing for a personal best. The deer might still be a danger to him, but he was past caring about that. His wife was back in the truck, out of harm’s way. When he was at full pitch, he strode to the deer to seize its neck in the crook of his left arm and plunge the knife into its heart.
Here’s what she saw: Her husband taking on an excitement familiar and, in this context, disturbing. She looked on the man she loved, ready to plunge his knife into the heart of the wounded deer, and felt disgust.
At his touch, the deer seemed to take an electric charge. It stretched its neck and bounded, a hint of healthy motion, enough to carry it beyond his reach. The man ran after it, and though its gait showed he’d been right that it would never recover, it out-distanced him. He ran into the grass, his arms pumping at full run, the knife ready. He ran until the deer was lost in the f luid grass, gone to ground somewhere in that wide and treeless horizon. After that the man wandered, looking for it. The rush gone, he was weak, and even his eyesight seemed less acute than it had been a few moments before. He looked until he heard the blast from his truck’s horn, calling him back.